Saturday, April 2, 2011

Is Easter Early This Year?

No, not really.  In fact it isn’t due for three weeks, April 24 to be precise, but I just can’t wait.  I have the Easter bunny bug.  Come to think of it, I don’t think the Greeks even have an Easter bunny but if they do it only lays red eggs, and not that often on the same date as its Catholic or Protestant Easter bunny buddies.

Yes, blood red eggs (kokkina avga) are a tradition in the Greek Orthodox Church, symbolizing the blood of Christ and rebirth—in life as well as season.   The secret of the color, according to some, is to prepare the dye from the skins of yellow Spanish onions.  I guess that means you could say Greece and Spain have been together in the red for a lot longer than just the past couple of years. [No wincing, please.] 

As for why different dates for the same holiday, there are two answers—one easy one not.  The simple answer is that Greeks and others of the Eastern Orthodox faith calculate their Easter based upon the Julian calendar while Protestants and Catholics use the modern Gregorian calendar.  If you want to know precisely how the date is determined, the explanation starts to sound strangely reminiscent of some I’ve heard for Greece’s current financial woes:

“The determination of the date of Easter is governed by a computation based on the vernal equinox (the point at which the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator, the sun having a northerly motion) and the phase of the moon. According to the ruling of the First Ecumenical Synod in 325, Easter Sunday should fall on the Sunday which follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox. If the full moon happens to fall on a Sunday, Easter is observed the following Sunday. The day taken to be the invariable date of the vernal equinox is March 21.”

I think it best we just say that Greek Easter follows the Julian calendar (though both are on April 24 this year) and leave it at that.

But no matter how the date is determined, Easter is by far the main event in Eastern Orthodoxy.  It is preceded by more than a week of significant religious and cultural observations.  And on Mykonos, Easter literally brings the island back to life.

Mykonos in Springtime

In the winter, Mykonos is a sleepy island village with virtually no tourists, no business, few open bars, fewer restaurants, and no clubs.  But come Easter Week everything changes.  Red and yellow springtime poppies burst to life all over the island’s hillsides, and those and still more varieties of flowers embroider the blanket of green covering the nearby holy island of Delos.  There are Church services every day of Holy Week, as well as daily preparations for the feast to come at the end.  Breads and cookies are readied on Monday and Tuesday, baking is done on Wednesday, and eggs are dyed red on Thursday, the day Christ was put up on the Cross.

Tsoureki Easter bread

By Thursday, Mykonos is filled with mainland Greeks flocking to their vacation homes and others looking to participate in a perfect example of spiritual and temporal coexistence: Easter church rituals strictly observed during the day, followed by the island’s as nearly hallowed party traditions through the night.  But that taste of the coming mid-summer craziness is short lived, for if you don’t catch the action that weekend come by in June, because Mykonos is back in hibernation come Tuesday.

An Epitaphios in procession on Mykonos
Evening services on Good Friday start at seven in the old town’s three main churches, Kiriake, Metropolis, and Panachra.  At precisely nine, each church’s clergy and worshipers leave their church in separate processions carrying their church’s epitaphios (the painted or embroidered cloth representation of Christ on a bier elaborately adorned in spring flowers and symbolizing his tomb) along a prearranged route, winding past the other two churches before ending up back at their own to complete the service.  It represents the funeral of Christ, and Mykonians and visitors line the route, some standing on balconies and sprinkling the participants below with a mixture of rose water and perfumes, the rodhonoro used on Christ’s body when taken down from the cross. 

The same three churches serve as the scene of the following night’s Holy Saturday services.  Most generally start heading off to church around ten, but for certain everyone is there by midnight.  For that is the high point of Easter, when church bells ring out across Greece and even total strangers exchange the traditional Christos Anesti and Alithos Anesti greetings that Christ has risen, kiss each other, and light each other’s candles to share the light and joy of the occasion—a light brought to Greece for just this purpose from the Holy Flame of Christ’s nativity cave in Jerusalem.  Worshipers carry the light back into their homes or their favorite restaurants, except for the hearty souls who remain in church for the balance of a service that lasts hours more into the morning. 

Midnight in Mykonos

Mayiritsa soup
Now it is time to challenge each other with the customary one-to-one smacking of those dyed-red eggs for good luck to the winner (mine always cracks first) and devour the traditional mayiritsa soup (made from parts of a lamb you may ask me about if you really want to know), fluffy tsoureki easter bread, and salads to break the forty-day fast leading up to Easter. 

But the big feast, the one everyone looks forward to, comes on Sunday.  That’s when all the work of the week and all the spring lambs find their purpose.  There is church, too, of course, but this day is more about celebrating with family and friends.  And eating.

The star of a Greek Easter Sunday (center)

Dieting starts Monday.  Kalo Paska 

Jeff — Saturday


  1. Once, when I was very young - and many long years ago - I was in Crete at Easter.
    In those days, many Cretans worked off the island and came home for Easter.
    I saw them on the ferry from Piraeus, all carrying packages which appeared, through the paper, like the corpses of lambs.
    And were the corpses of lambs.
    No one on the boat was particularly friendly.
    But, on Easter Sunday, it all changed.
    Was it clear from your post that Alithos Anesti means, "Truly, he is risen"?
    I'm not sure.
    But I'd learned it by then.
    We replied thus to the greetings of everyone we passed on the street.
    And were greeted with the warmest of smiles.

  2. That's given me an appetite, Jeff. Even for the red eggs. Especially for the red eggs. Easter looks like fun. No such fun here in London, just lots of kids hyped up on chocolate, and lots of others who are going to be hyped up on the forthcoming Royal Wedding. Hibernating Mykonos sounds like bliss to me!

  3. You're absolutely right, Leighton, Alithos Anesti ("Truly, he is risen") is the proper response to the Easter greeting Christos Anesti ("Christ is risen"). And your proper response to a sullen Cretan carrying any sort of corpse on a ferry or elsewhere is, "I know nothing."


  4. You're right, Dan, hibernating Mykonos is bliss. And I believe you serendipitously put your finger on the perfect description of Mykonos during its peak season madness. Picture an island full of kids--sixteen to sixty-six--"hyped up on chocolate."

    I shall immediately appropriate the phrase as my own but give you partial credit by referring to it as the "Waddsiger Principle."


  5. The explanation of the manner in which the date of Easter is calculated in the western church reads like something written by a lawyer. Those of us outside the profession simplify it to
    " the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox unless the first Sunday is actually March 21.

    After Palm Sunday, the rituals of Holy Week begin on Thursday evening with a long and very beautiful service commemorating the Last Supper at which the Eucharist became a central part of the faith. It also commemorates the institution of the priesthood as it was created by Christ. During the service, there is the washing of the feet as Christ did it at the Last Supper. At the end of the service, at which there is beautiful music, the altar is stripped and the Eucharist is removed from the tabernacle. Good Friday is the only day on which, in the Catholic church, Mass is not celebrated.

    The main service on Good Friday takes place at 3:00 in the afternoon, considered to be the time at which Christ died. There is veneration of the cross and the reading of the Passion. In the evening, there are the Stations of the Cross, the steps leading from the arrest of Christ to His body being being placed in the tomb.

    The churches are empty on Holy Saturday in the literal sense that the Eucharist is not in the church and there are no services until the evening. The main service of Holy Week does take place Saturday night when the service begins with the church in complete darkness. The holy fire is brought in and carried up the central aisle and candles are lit and the fire is passed through the church. The Easter Vigil ends with the beginning of Mass, Christ is back in the world.

    Christmas is the beginning of the salvation story when God becomes Man. But Easter brings salvation and redemption so the atmosphere is different on Easter. More joyous, I think, because if the story hadn't gone beyond the birth we would still be left out. Without the cross, there wouldn't be salvation. Without the resurrection, He would just be a good man who served all he encountered.

    I can imagine the fervor on Mykonos, a homogeneous society in which the passion, death, and resurrection are commemorated in the same way by everyone. The Easter greetings are so much more meaningful that "Happy Easter".

    The children of Greece are a stronger group that the children I know. The kids I know would be sobbing all through the day over the killing of a lamb they had met. A girl who cried when the snowman melted would never recover from being served something that was cute and alive so recently.

    There has to be chocolate on Easter; we always did some chocolate but we added some coloring books and crayons, and a stuffed version of the animals of Easter. Because the Easter Vigil was so late, we went to church on Easter morning. For a time there was a priest assigned to the parish who had friends who owned a farm. After each Mass, a zoo of sorts appeared on a side lawn. There was usually a lamb, bunnies, and some chicks. It was a look-don't-touch situation or the animals wouldn't have made it past the first crowd of kids.

    Since Easter is so late this year, there is reason to believe that there will be leaves on the trees and flowers blooming. Yesterday, April 1, we had 3 or 4 inches of heavy, cement-like slush on the street and the lawns were white. Today it is going to fifty degrees so it will be gone until next December, we hope.


  6. Jeff

    Great post. The first call we always receive on Greek Easter Morning is my sister-in-law, who says Christos Anesti. I never knew that the proper way to respond is Alithos Anesti (could you explain how to pronounce 'alithos' please. I want to be able to say it to her this year.

    I really love how little by little you are letting us learn about the ways of the Mykonos people. Keep these blogs coming.


  7. Beth,

    I am not the lawyer who wrote that, nor am I one who understands it. But I will litigate it for you if you'd like:).

    Your point on the "fervor" of the occasion in a "homogeneous society" is well taken. Of the eleven million living in Greece virtually all observe Orthodox Easter, the unquestioned high point in a daily life holding the Greek Church at its heart.

    On the subject of chocolate, who among us could not use more?

    May the warmth be with you.


    Thank you, what you wrote meant a lot to me and I can't wait for your take on my upcoming blogs addressing life on Mykonos during tourist season, accompanied by judiciously selected photographs of its 24/7 lifestyle. If not careful, that's when I might need the lawyer.

    On Easter morning blow your sister-in-law away with "ah-lee-THOHSS ah-NES-tee."


  8. Jeff's explanation of the Easter holiday and the following posts are all so illuminating. As a Jew married into a Greek Orthodox family, I always look to Greek Easter as being the Sunday that follows Passover - again, another lunar holiday. We will be celebrating Greek Easter in Greece this year - a trip we are looking forward to with great fervor.

  9. Hi Mark,

    If you haven't been to Greece before during Eastertime you are in for a delightful experience. As you may know, Passover traditions play a large part in what you will observe, right down to the pascal lamb. In fact, the traditional Easter greeting of "Kalo Paska" is translated by some as "Good Passover." Enjoy!